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What Happens When We Enslave Ourselves to Work?

A cautionary tale of an extreme case and its consequences



It is perilous to invest too much of your identity in work. I made this blunder in my late 20s; buying into the notion that a reckless devotion was required to get ahead in my life and career. I was working 70-hour weeks or more and many weeks without a day of rest.


During the rare times that I would have some downtime, I’d grab drinks with friends from work. ‘Work hard, play hard’ was our motto. I bought into that lie and it made me a volatile person.


But I’m lucky.


I snapped out of it early. I knew that this wasn’t a good path so I made a decision to change. I started to experience some health problems that I was too young to have.


I was on the wrong path.


There had to be more to life than work. Or thinking about work every waking hour.


Find Some Meaning

I found some meaning in quiet time with books. I bought a new bike and took up road cycling. I focused more on my spiritual side.


I also bought a motorcycle and got intentional about getting some time away to recharge mentally and emotionally.


It made a big difference for me.


My identity ceased to be defined by my work.


The paradoxical thing about releasing my identity from my work was that it brought more passion to my work.


Less time. But more energy to do better work.


As a professional advisor, my work is with people. A lot of extraordinary people who have accomplished inspiring things. It’s such a privilege to get to know so many different types. I learn from every one of them.


I have learned from the way that they run their businesses, how they lead their families, and from how they spend their free time.


We Are More Than Our Work

Yet I’m still amazed by how many people live into their twilight years without ever developing an identity outside of their business. It’s unhealthy in so many ways. It leaves a trail of wreckage in health, relationships, and mental well-being; if not now, eventually.


One of the most extreme examples of this phenomenon I have worked with is Gene Keating. I’m changing names and some facts in the name of protecting people’s privacy.


This Story Is a Cautionary One

I’d implore any person who sees themselves in this man to make some course corrections. It’s not too late to make changes. I have watched people transform from this behavior pattern well into their late 70s.


It can be done.


There’s no excuse for anyone younger.


Meeting Gene The First Time

I met Gene Keating at a financial roundtable event. I had done a short talk on some coming changes to the retirement planning landscape for plan sponsors. He had some questions about plan design for one of his business clients. We hit it off right away.


Gene, a CPA, was a get-to-the-point kind of guy and I found his eagerness to help his clients endearing. We made an appointment to meet at his office so we could go over the clients’ circumstances and needs in a little more detail.


Pretty soon, we were collaborating on a number of cases together. Since I was spending more time with Gene, I’d ask him about what kinds of things he and his family liked to do when he wasn’t working.


First Sign Of Trouble

“I’m always working!”, Gene replied. I thought that this was maybe part braggadocio and let it go. I knew the culture of small CPA firms is to put massive hours in around tax time.


For some CPAs who progressed in accounting around his time, time spent working was a badge of honor. I assumed his statement to be hyperbole, chuckled, and got back to the work at hand.


As the months rolled on, working with Gene was productive. We were able to make an enormous difference for a number of his clients. But something was off with Gene.


He Really Lived In His Office

I would regularly get calls from his office number past 11 pm. A non-starter for me given my earlier epiphany about the importance of maintaining boundaries. I knew that my brain needed time to shut down and not think about work in order to bring the best version of myself to my business.


He didn’t pressure me to conform to his way of doing things. But he would never give up with the calls and texts at inappropriate hours. He also had unreasonable response time expectations.


Over time, I got to meet his wife and 3 adult children. It didn’t take long to see the emotional distance between Gene and the rest of his family. They hadn’t completely given up on Gene but it seemed like they were close.


I learned some of the reasons why from Gene himself. He could not take himself away from work. It was all he loved. He had no interests or hobbies other than accounting.

If that sounds impossible to believe, you’re going to have to take my word for it. I witnessed it.


No Time For Family

Gene’s family would make vacation plans with him months in advance, well away from the tax-filing season which is crunch time for accountants. They’d keep reminding him and he’d keep promising them that he wouldn’t cancel again.


Then, sometimes literally the night before the trip, he’d cancel and be ‘unable’ to join due to work.


Was he really required to be in the office by his clients at those times?


I knew he wasn’t.


Though I’m not an accountant, I knew enough about the scope of work to know that it wasn’t necessary.


And these trips were often around the holidays when clients don’t expect him to be working anyway.


One Dimensional Life

What was happening? I believe that he couldn’t find joy in any activity other than work. He couldn’t even allow himself to do something fun that his family might enjoy like a much-needed vacation. His family learned to be prepared that they were going alone.


And they did.


On the rare occasions that he did go with them on the planned trip, he’d cut it shorter than everyone else. Again, due to ‘work’ requirements. He just had to get back to the office for something pressing. So he would take an earlier flight back home than the rest of his family.

Gene’s slavish dedication to work helped endear him to clients, right?


Well, yes and no.


Attracting The Wrong People

Gene definitely had a loyal following of clients. The problem is that the most ‘loyal’ ones were the worst clients from a business perspective. They were the clients who didn’t bring in much revenue and would bring in the shoebox full of receipts and expect Gene to organize everything and then do the actual accounting.


Their loyalty had more to do with the fact that they could take advantage of Gene. These weren’t clients that I could work with.


Gene’s best clients started to disappear sensing that something was off. I would hear their comments. His work was good but something about him just seemed unhinged.


Repelling The Right People

It wasn’t about the money either. When the high-revenue business clients left and sought a new accounting firm, they were invariably going to be paying more at the new firm. Gene kept his pricing low but the lower cost didn’t stop the exodus.


I made attempts to talk to Gene about what I could see happening. I’d have heart-to-heart discussions with him and it seemed like he was listening. But nothing ever changed. His practice continued to bleed the best business clients. The trend accelerated over time.


Gene still couldn’t see it. His response was to take on more and more small, low-revenue clients. I know he’d get frustrated with me as I’d explain to him why I couldn’t help those clients. Their needs and my practice were not a good fit for one another.


The misalignment got so bad that we just couldn’t collaborate anymore. It’s sad because I really respect and admire his work. Our contact became less frequent. We’d check in a couple of times a year; usually around the tax times April and October.


Health Problems Arise

Until one January morning, I received a cryptic text from Gene. I responded and, as it turns out, he was in the hospital. There were a number of issues with his health. I still handled Gene’s personal accounts and he had some questions about the investments. I knew this was a ruse.


Gene was lonely and just looking for some contact. He was stuck in the hospital. He had burned out his family relationships. He had neglected his health. He had no other interests. And worst of all for him; he couldn’t go back into the office.


I called him to see how he was doing and all he could talk about was how he needed to get back to the office!


For the next couple of years, Gene found himself in and out of the hospital a lot. There were falls and a myriad of other health issues. Each time he would get out of the hospital, he would go back into his office.


Work As An Addictive Behavior

Some people are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Gene was addicted to his work. He just couldn’t break free.


His health never returned and eventually, he was forced to stop going into the office. He just couldn’t anymore. His driver’s license had been revoked and by that time, he couldn’t physically get himself into a car anyway.


The ‘loyal’ following of clients that were happy to take advantage of him; where were they? They were clients right until the end. I did see many of them express concern but knew it was a faux concern.


How did I know this?


These were the same people that he’d have to chase around for payment every year for work he had already done. They’d convince themselves that they had great loyalty for Gene but the truth was they weren’t going to find another accountant who would deal with their antics.


Obviously, health issues can happen to any of us. Not every issue can be attributed to Gene’s lack of life balance. Health issues can rise up that no one could have predicted. The fact that work is not permanent, though, should motivate us all to develop other dimensions of our lives.


Gene’s Only Persona Was Work

When the work gets taken away, there’s nothing left. He didn’t get to choose and now there is no other part to fall back on. Health or other external circumstances can remove our jobs or businesses from our lives. It’s not pleasant to consider but it’s reality.


Maybe the health issues had been unavoidable for Gene. The trauma of what he went through could have been reduced if he had good relationships with his wife and kids. A real family support system. His kids hadn’t spoken with him in years at this point though.


How might have things been different if he had developed other interests besides work?

He was financially very strong. He didn’t need to work. I believe that the reason that he held on so long to the failing business was that he had nothing else in his life that interested him.


Putting It All Together

Commitment to ones’ business is a noble thing. I’m not arguing against finding fulfillment in work. We spend a lot of time working throughout our lives. It should be fulfilling.


The takeaway from this story is that every person must develop dimensions to their life outside of work. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity.


Your work actually depends on it.


Your relationships depend on it.


Your health depends on it.


Your life depends on it.


https://medium.com/the-ascent/what-happens-when-we-enslave-ourselves-to-work-bcdfdc61f11b

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©2020 by Brent Rupnow, CEPA, CFP, CLU, ChFC